With gas prices rising to record levels, President Obama went on the offensive Thursday, chastising Republicans for promising to lower pump prices they can't control and blaming the current price surge on the continuing unrest in the Middle East.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to make phony election-year promises about lower gas prices," Obama said during a visit to the battleground state of Florida. "What's harder is to make a serious, sustained commitment to tackle a problem that may not be solved in one year or one term or even one decade."
To gain energy independence, the country must adopt a strategy "that develops every available source of American energy -- oil, gas, wind, solar, nuclear, biofuels," said Obama, who announced $44 billion in funding for natural gas and biofuels research.
He dismissed Republican claims that gas prices could be lowered by increasing domestic oil production.
"Anyone who tells you we can drill our way out of this problem doesn't know what they're talking about -- or isn't telling you the truth," he said.
Some analysts expect gas prices to hit $4 a gallon at the height of the driving season this summer. Gas prices have jumped 29 cents since December, according to the Energy Information Administration, and AAA reports that the current $3.61-per-gallon is the highest ever for this time of year.
Obama sought to rebut Republican efforts to cast him as an obstacle to greater domestic oil production and blame him for volatile jumps in the cost of gas.
Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich promised voters $2.50-per-gallon gas if he is elected. One of his rivals, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, warned that gas would hit $5 a gallon under Obama.
"Instead of offering a real plan to lower the cost of gasoline, President Obama offered excuses and fantasies," Gingrich said. "Blaming instability in the Middle East for high gas prices is not leadership. Neither is promising magic future technologies that won't satisfy today's energy needs."
Republicans blasted Obama for blocking construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and accused him of undermining the oil and gas industries by revoking their tax breaks even as he creates new tax incentives for green-energy companies.
"The president of the United States has done everything possible to shut down energy production," Santorum said at a rally in Phoenix.
But Obama administration officials argue that, contrary to Republican claims, domestic oil production has increased to its highest level in eight years.
"The biggest thing that's causing the price of oil to rise right now is instability in the Middle East -- this time in Iran," Obama said, adding that rising demand for oil in China, India and Brazil has only added to the problem.
Regardless of who's to blame, high gas prices are proven to sap consumer confidence, and senior administration officials are privately worrying about the impact that could have on the recovery and, in turn, Obama's reelection efforts.
But there's not much the president can do to ease pain at the pump, barring short-term relief through the release of some of the country's oil reserves, which are stockpiled for emergency shortages, administration officials said.
A team of Democratic lawmakers asked Obama on Thursday to dip into the oil reserves, but the president has so far declined.